In defense of unions and Metro employees

The  following quote is from a NY Times article By SABRINA TAVERNISE:

“Richard Freeman, an economist at Harvard, said he saw the hostility toward unions as a sign of decay in society. Some working-class people see so few possibilities for their lives that it is eroding the aspirational nature that has long been typical of Americans.

“It shows a hopelessness,” he said. “It used to be, ‘You have something I don’t have; I’ll go to my employer to get it, too. Now I don’t see any chance of getting it. I don’t want to be the lowest one on the totem pole, so I don’t want you to have it either.’ ”


As I write this, there are ongoing political fights over workers’ rights to organize, join unions, and bargain collectively in several states.  I tend to be on the cynical side but what’s happening is hard to believe.  The idea that unions are responsible for our financial problems is preposterous.  The ‘masters of the Universe’ must be howling with laughter.  They are primarily responsible for the Great Recession yet their puppets (politicians) have managed to get working class and middle class people to turn on each other, instead of directing their anger where it belongs.

The quote above sums things up pretty well.  Instead of trying to organize themselves, many non-union workers resent what unionized workers have.  It apparently does not occur to them that by being indifferent or worse, attacking unions, they are hurting themselves — either directly or indirectly.  The politicians who are hell bent on destroying American unions are taking advantage of this resentment and envy.  It is making it easier for them to divide and conquer the “peasants”.

Let me start by saying that there are some valid criticisms of unions.  I realize that unions can sometimes be unreasonable in their demands.  Work rules can hamper management.  Unions periodically protect lazy and/or incompetent workers.  It is said that in some cases, unions have contributed to the demise of entire industries.  I worked with a guy at Metro who had worked in a steel mill in Pittsburg until the mill closed down.  He was a staunch union supporter but he said that in his opinion his union had contributed to steel manufacturing being moved overseas.  Regardless, unions do far more good than harm.

Our union, ATU Local 689, frequently gets employees who have been fired re-hired — even some whose termination seemed to be justified.  Sometimes they protect employees who may not particularly deserve it.  However, for every story like that there are plenty of others that involve employees who have been wrongly disciplined or treated unfairly and deserve to have their grievance heard and taken seriously.  As a front line worker, it is sometimes vitally important to have a union officer represent you and balance the power management has to potentially destroy your life.  That’s what it should be, a balance.  Like our two party political system, or our adversarial legal system (with the arbitrator being the ‘judge’).  Ideally it should be a partnership.  After all, all Metro employees should have the same ultimate goal — safe and efficient public transportation.

We all have unions to thank for many things: the 8 hour work day; the 5 day work week; the concept of overtime (OT) pay; paid holidays; paid vacations; paid sick days; medical and dental insurance; and a variety of labor laws and social programs.  People suffered and fought — many were injured and murdered by thugs — to secure these rights that we enjoy.  We should never forget that.  We also cannot afford to take these benefits for granted.  Without unions, working conditions for most workers — union and non-union alike — would quickly deteriorate and drift back toward what they were in 1900.  “Don’t want to work for $7/hour?  Tough!  There are plenty who will.  Hit the road!”  Unions boost wages, increase benefits, and improve conditions for all workers because non-union employers must compete with unionized companies for qualified employees.

It’s understandable that CEOs and managers do not like unions.  They want to maximize profit and anything that gets in the way — pesky government regs, unions demanding fair treatment for workers — is seen as an impediment to be eliminated.  I’m sure most republicans feel that things would be a lot easier if those darn democrats weren’t always getting in their way as well (and vice versa).

My former coworkers and I read the comments about Metro workers after the articles on and other local media websites and blogs.  We’re well aware of the contempt some people have for unions in general and Metro employees in particular.  Some of that criticism is deserved.  Most of us have had our own experiences with Metro employees who are “less than helpful”.  I would like people to keep in mind however that for every surly, incompetent, and/or rude Metro employee they encounter there are many others who are behind the scenes, quietly doing their jobs.  Jobs that are often dirty, dangerous, and thankless.  In fact, several of my coworkers were killed on the job in just the last few years.

Recently, the federal judge who is presiding over the WMATA/ATU Local 689 contract dispute, Peter Messitte, ruled that the agreed upon 3% per year raise for Metro employees who are represented by ATU Local 689 is excessive, at least according to his interpretation of the National Capital Area Interest Arbitration Standards Act.  That 3% raise was the result of _”binding”_ arbitration but apparently “binding” has different meanings to different people.  The parts of the results of the binding arbitration that were deemed acceptable by Judge Messitte months ago were both detrimental to Local 689 members:

1) A significant increase in our health insurance premiums.

2) The elimination of health insurance during retirement for employees hired after a certain date.

Granted, the above does not compare to what the governors of Wisconsin and several other states are attempting to do (eliminate unions entirely) but eliminating the health insurance in retirement for new hires is a huge blow.  It obviously doesn’t affect me, but it was a huge concession that should not have been made.  Many new hires can forget the 27 years and out (or age plus years of service = 83) for full retirement because there’s no way they will be able to afford to retire.  A person who starts at Metro at age 20 may very well have to work 45 years until they are eligible for Medicare.

I don’t expect to get much sympathy from the public for my former coworkers but I’d like to point out the following:

Most Metro workers do not earn anywhere near the extreme amounts that are published in the local press (see  “What do Metro employees really make?” below).  Yes, there are some employees who practically live at Metro and earn well over $100K with overtime, but they do not have a life.  They work, eat, and sleep.  That’s it.  Some do not even go home for days at a time.

The average Metro employee probably earns about $60K per year, which isn’t much in an area where townhouses cost $300K to $400K+.

The typical pension is about 50% of the employee’s “high four” [years] earnings.

Most of my coworkers in Automatic Train Control (ATC) were/are intelligent and conscientious.  At a minimum all have associates’ degrees and/or extensive military experience.  Some have engineering degrees, and a few even have advanced degrees.  The same goes for many other Maintenance and Construction (M&C) depts.  Years ago the pay was competitive and Metro was able to hire qualified technicians.  Recently however, that has changed.  The pay is no longer high enough — even in this economy — to attract competent people.  Cutting pay or holding it steady is very short-sighted.  Sure, most employees that are vested will probably stay, but Metro will continue to have trouble attracting competent applicants.

We frequently hear about “overpaid bus drivers/train operators/station managers”.  What many people do not realize is that the pay of all members of Local 689 is tied to what is called “Top Operator” pay — the top base salary for bus drivers and train operators.  ATC technicians (and other M&C mechanics and techs) are paid essentially the same as a bus driver or train operator, +/- about 10%.  A “D” (or ‘Helper’) starts at 90% of Top Operator rate.  When I started back in 1983, 90% of what a bus driver made was still good money.  In fact, it was 50 to 100% more than what private companies were offering.  Now, after 27 years of mostly tiny to non-existent raises, 90% of a bus driver’s salary is not enough to persuade experienced techs to put up with the downsides of working for Metro — frequently poor working conditions (dirty tunnels, outdoors in the heat and cold); working 3 shifts; the strong possibility of having your shift, days off, and/or work location potentially change every 6 months with the “shift pick”; and last but definitely not least, the very real possibility of being hurt or killed on the job.  Years ago, I asked an insurance salesman about purchasing disability insurance — he told me it was next to impossible to get for someone in my position.  That should tell you something.

If Metro wants to increase the pay for certain positions to increase the quality of the applicants they must give _everyone_ — all approx. 7,000 Local 689 members — the same raise.  Obviously that  is not feasible so the pay for all job categories remains unchanged (or increases 1 or 2%) and the problem continues.

Unless something gives, Metro will continue to be forced to hire unqualified people to work on ATC equipment, rail cars, track, buses, etc.  At best, doing so will cause more frequent delays and reliability problems.  At worst, people will die.  It is serious business.

All of us, union & non-union; management; government workers & and people working for private firms — we’re all in pretty much the same boat.  We need to stick together.


Here are some related posts on the Greater Greater Washington (GGW) blog:

1) “Metro will appeal arbitration award”

by David Alpert •   November 5, 2009 4:25 pm

2) “What do you want to do about labor costs?”

by David Alpert •   March 3, 2010 2:28 pm

3) “What do Metro employees really make?”

by Michael Perkins •   May 12, 2010 10:20 am

4) “Metro wins ruling against arbitration award”

by David Alpert •   February 18, 2011 2:49 pm

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